Harder Than It Seems

So it turns out teaching reading to struggling readers is hard. Harder than I expect some days.

And I get frustrated.

I do my very best to focus my energy on building kids up and helping them see that we’re working together to help them and put to rest any frustrations they have so that we can plow forward into reading. I am not always successful. Students are not always attentive or motivated or engaged or ready to read no matter how fun I try to make it or how interesting I make the texts. Sometimes it’s just really hard.

I just read the article “Eliminating Shame in Reading Instruction” by Justin Stygles in the latest Literacy Today magazine (January/Februrary 2016, Volume 33, Issue 4). I needed to read it because I needed a reminder that my frustrations are valid but I have avenues for combating them. What Stygles said was a good reality check for me with 75% of the year almost done and my focus and energy waning. While I don’t “shame” students who struggle to read, the article talks about the shame that comes from students internally when they are realizing the struggles they face or they begin to notice how much more difficult reading is for them than for their peers. I may interpret their person frustrations and feelings of shame as inattention and lack of focus sometimes when my own frustrations are high. But it’s not about me. It’s about the students who feel like they’re never going to be able to get it.

The thing that stuck with me was his point that reading never leaves us. If a student joins a sport and realizes that she isn’t developing skill or passion for the sport, she can move on and try something else, leaving that behind. But with reading there is “no escape,” Stygles said. Reading is a requirement for life and many students are behind in their development with no way out.

To fight against this, Stygles gives his three guiding principles: “compassion, authenticity, and resiliency.” Those words all seem like things we know about as teachers, but they way Stygles discusses them gave me a new perspective on how to nurture readers. He says compassion is helping kids at the beginning of the year find good books they enjoy and positive experiences with reading before doing running records or assessments, which are signals of failure for strugglers. I liked the idea of giving students time to find their way before diving into the data. It’s not always possible at my school as our benchmarking schedule is set by administration and not me, but I can work on going “slow” the first few days or weeks to get kids interested in the experiences before adding new skills.

His next principle is authenticity – but not how you’d expect. I hear this work and think the work should be authentic (and it should), but he’s saying that teachers should share their own experiences with reading (good and bad) with students. It’s helpful for them to know that even seasoned readers struggle, abandon books, or aren’t engaged. If they know it’s okay to be intimidated by reading some of the time, they might be more willing to challenge themselves and push forward. I talk to my students now about my reading experiences, but I tend to focus on the good books I couldn’t put down or the pleasure I get out of it. I need to be open about what has been hard for me with them so they can see how I’ve overcome those things or how I’ve changed my habits to avoid pitfalls.

The final principle is resiliency. The way he describes it is really about knowing yourself as a reader and learner in a positive way. Sometimes positivity comes from negative experiences. Our resiliency comes from trying something and reflecting on the success or failure of that attempt and using that information in the future. Success and failure become less about good and bad and more about guiding us in the next step. If this didn’t work, I have to try something else, which isn’t inherently bad. I don’t always share my thinking with my students as far as what works and what doesn’t, but I’m doing that in my head all the time. I think as teachers, we constantly have a dialogue going about what to do next, how to fix what went wrong, and what to improve for next time. (At least, I’M always talking to myself…) If I share that with students they may see that while externally things are moving smoothly, internally, I’m questioning, testing, and changing all the time.

I’m going to open my mind about this and really try to instill these simple principles in my teaching in a more active way. But I’m also going to keep counting down the days until summer break…

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